“A Visit From Saint Nicholas”

 

st_nick

Introduction

The winter months have always been a time for storytelling. People have gathered around fires and shared stories; in the cold, dark months when the fields were fallow and the animals hibernated. It is in this vein which I chose to tell “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”. Originally the holiday poem was published anonymounsly, but later claimed by scholar Clement Clarke Moore. A religious man and professor of oriental and Greek literture, the poem was composed to be recited for Moore’s children on Christmas Eve. The sing-song melody makes the poem very pleasant on the ear, and easier for memorization.

written in rhyming anapests, a meter ideally suited to the subject. The vivid descriptions, especially of St. Nicholas and his reindeer, remain with the reader long after the poem has been read or heard. Here is sheer delight, for Moore was interested in entertaining his children, not in preaching to them. The eight tiny reindeer have been given names that trip on the tongue” (2015, Poetry Foundation).

Process and Preparation

Since both my past performances included heavily edited storytelling, I decided to recite poetry this time. At first I thought of learning and memorizing a favourite poem, like “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe; the timeframe which this assignemnt would be due did not calculate for enough time. So I started thinnking about all the different poems I had recited for school as a kid, or had read so many times it was practially memorized…most were too short in legnth, by A Visit From St. Nicholas stood out. It was then I did the research and found my intuition to be correct: it is a lovely poem, enjoyed by people of all ages, and has been performed many times over.

From color cartoons, claymation, adaptations and famous recordings, there are an incredible number of variations on the original imagery. For example, before the publishing of A Visit, Santa was known to only have one horse or reindeer which pulled his sled; Moore described, and named, the eight reindeer which is best known today…although Rudolph was added roughly 100 years later. The imagery of Santa was also forever unified as the many different winter elves became the modern Santa Claus; with the exception of Saint Nicholas, of course. One of the better known recitation of A Visit still is the recording by Perry Como in 1953; it was released as a single and appeared on his 1953 EP, Around The Christmas Tree, with original music by Ray Charles.

I prepared for this performance by reciting the poem to my family, I listened and watched videos over and over. Youtube was an excellent research tool for finding various recitations/performances of this seasonal favourite. It was more difficult to find live tellings, as most seemed to be audio recordings, which meant I had to create my own gestures and physicality for the performance. So I decied while practicing I would imagine the audience were hard of hearing, so I pantomined several of the stanzas such as when describing the appearance of Saint Nicholas.

Conclusion

While this was not the longest poem, nor performance my best, I found the research and telling to be memorable. The poetry transformed my attitude this season, as I usually do not enjoy the holidays. But this poem has a magic to it, that captures the imagination of it’s listeners and readers, reminding us of the innocense of anitcipation we all experience at this time of year. Nostalgia with memories, either bittersweet or fond, a good poem emotionally connects the audience and teller; which this poem always does.

References

Poetry Foundation. (2015). Biography of Clement Clarke Moore. Retrieved 12/01/2015 from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/clement-clarke-moore

Oster, Grant. (December 24, 2012). A Visit from St. Nicholas. Retieved 12/01/2015 from http://hankeringforhistory.com/a-visit-from-st-nicholas/

Appendix

A Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the housetop the coursers they flew

With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

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British Fairy Tales: References

The following are articles and websites found over the course of this research project. Links are provided when possible.

Ashliman, D.L. Jack and the Beanstalk: eight versions of an English fairy tale. Retrieved November 17, 2015 from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0328jack.html

Clodd, Edward. (1898). Tot Tit Tot: An essay on savage philosophy in folktale. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=j7pZAAAAMAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Goldberg, Christine. (2001). “The composition of ‘jack and the beanstalk’. Marvels & Tales, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp.11-26.

Goldenstern, Joyce. (2001). Connections that open up: Coordination and causality in folktales.  Marvels & Tales, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 27-41.

Haase, Donald. (2010). Decolonizing fairy-tale studies. Marvels & Tales, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 17-38.

Haase, Donald. (December 1993). Yours, mine, or ours? perault, the brothers grimm, and the ownership of fairy tales.  Merveilles & Contes, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 383-402.

Kaplan, M. (2009). Articles about storytelling: Joseph Jacobs, writer of childrens’ literature. Retrieved November 17, 2015 from http://www.storyteller.net/articles/136

Nikolajeva, Maria. (2003). “Fairy tales and fantasy: From archaic to postmodern”. Marvels & Tales, Vol. 17, No.1, p138-156.

Sale, Roger. (Autumn, 1977). “Fairy tales”. The Hudson Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, p372-394.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. (2010). “Beautiful maidens, hideous suitors: Victorian fairy tales and the process of civilization”. Marvels & Tales. Vol. 24 Issue 2, p272-296.

Page_210_illustration_in_English_Fairy_Tales
From English Fairy Tales, Jacobs, J., 1895 New York

Below are various films about indigenous fairy tales, myths and legends of the British Isles. Whilst there are many different kinds of traditions and lineages, the underlying landscape has shaped and cultivated a love of storytelling shared by all.

British Fairy Tales: Conclusion

https://magicforestworkshop.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/inspiration-from-illustrator-hilda-t-miller-18761939/
Illustration by Hilda Miller.

The research involved in this study revealed cultural and historical significance these tales had over the course of only a few centuries. Acquiring the details of development proved to be difficult due to lacking materials which recorded the evolution of them. The initial lack of interest English scholars held for native tales almost wiped them out of relevance. During the last few decades serious scholarship has begun revealing the significance these stories have had on modern literary tales also.

The last thirty years and more have been a period of extraordinarily fruitful creative and critical engagement with the fairy tale – indeed, that fairy-tale production has been provoked and nourished by fairy-tale studies precisely because scholars from many disciplines have related the genre to social, political, cultural, educational, and other human concerns in what is called, in contrast to the ‘ivory tower’ of academe, the real world” (2010, p.18).

Adding to the scholarship, there have also been recent findings of primary sources for fairytales long forgotten; only a few years ago 500 new fairytales were rediscovered in a German archive. In popular media there has been a resurging interest in these old world stories; Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and The Snow Queen have all been reincarnated into modern Disney princesses.  These stories are not possessed by one single culture any longer as global exchange becomes more rapid and accessible than any other time in history. The sharing of stories and perspectives changes because of society, not the few who want to commodify community characters.

Not the culture industry, but the folk themselves are held responsible for the fairy tale’s bankruptcy. Ironically, the fairy tale’s status as communal property is proposed as the very cause of its neglect and demise” (1993, p.384).

Modern copyright laws and the concept of ‘ownership’ are modern problems that doesn’t necessarily negate the relevance of these fairytales. If anything, they become a rare thing in a consumer driven world: the last truly free treasure.

 

Haase, Donald. (2010). Decolonizing fairy-tale studies. Marvels & Tales, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 17-38.

Haase, Donald. (December 1993). Yours, mine, or ours? perault, the brothers grimm, and the ownership of fairy tales.  Merveilles & Contes, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 383-402.

British Fairy Tales: Tom Tit Tot

tomtittotOne of the most popular characters from the realm of British Fairy Tales is a dark imp named Tom Tit Tot. This classic story is very much like it’s German cousin, Rumpelstilskin: a genre of antaganists who, in a passive-aggressive way, help the ‘lady in distress’ with ulterior motives. After the task has been completed, he very cleverly allows the girl to guess his name for a set period of time, and if she doesn’t guess there is a price to pay. This sacrifice varies with the versions being told; a promise marriage to the Imp or the first born baby, either way is a frightening prospect for the protanganist. Sometimes the girl is the Heroine, as she cleverly has the Imp followed and finds his name out (as in Rumpelstilskin and Jacobs’ version). Other times it is the King, her husband, who saves the day…but only after his queen comes clean about the bargains and lies. This little ‘devil’ is a common motif found throughout the world; troll, dark fairy man, a demon or the Devil himself.

As the old legends show, and as is also manifest in the ‘Tom Tit Tot’ group of stories, he is the transformed giant or wizard with the superadded features of the fiend whose aim it is to induce the unwary to agree to sell themselves to him at the price of some fleeting advantage. Hence, when he is checkmated, great is the joy at the discomfiture of the ‘stupid beast’, as Pope Gregory the Great called him. And of this defeat many a legend tells” (1898, p.48).

'Nimmy nimmy not Your name's Tom Tit Tot.'
‘Nimmy nimmy not
Your name’s Tom Tit Tot.’

Although the first printing of this story was in Jacobs’ “English Fairy Tales” in 1890, the full story of “Tom Tit Tot” was created into a book by folklorist Edward Clodd in 1898. Remaining true to the oral tradition, these earlier versions were printed in the East Anglian dialect. The reasons for keeping the ‘original’ language has been analyzed at length, but remains to be essentially for reasons of storytelling richness. As one article suggests, framing these ‘metalanguages’ into the narration adds a depth of setting with cues in the telling:

Babcock defines metanarration or metalanguage as ‘the reflexive dimension’ of language in a tale; that is, language that calls attention to the act of storytelling (63). And similarly, Bauman has defined framing as ‘messages’ about how to interpret the ‘message’ of the tale itself (15). Studies by Bauman and Babcock have affirmed the importance of metanarration ad framing in oral tales for establishing tone and irony, but not necessarily for establishing semantic relationships between sentences or narrative units (Bauman 15-24; Babcock 61-76). Moreover, Schiffrin concedes that ‘well’ has no semantic content or grammatical ‘status’ (102)” (2001, p.29).

A good example is included in this performance by a champion storyteller, in which he recites the tale from memorization in it’s original metalanguage; an 19th century dialect of English which can still be understood.

 

Clodd, Edward. (1898). Tot Tit Tot: An essay on savage philosophy in folktale. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=j7pZAAAAMAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Goldenstern, Joyce. (2001). Connections that open up: Coordination and causality in folktales.  Marvels & Tales, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 27-41.

 

British Fairy Tales: Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack_and_the_Beanstalk_Giant_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17034
“Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman! Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!”

One of my personal favourites, Jack is an ordinary lad who ends up having extraordinary luck and adventures. Throughout the entirety of English folk and fairy tale, the lad named Jack has many different adventures: “How Jack went to seek His Fortune”, “Jack and His Golden Snuffbox”, “Jack the Giant Killer”, “Lazy Jack”, nursery ryhmes like “Jack and Jill” and “Jack Sprat”.  In the version I grew up hearing, Jack’s story has magic: a variety of treasures, a rhyming enchantment, and a child-hero who saves his family from poverty. This is a pretty typical motif which sticks out in all the versions of this story.

an impoverished hero who travels to the ogre’s house, a scene in which the hero meets the ogre’s wife (daughter, servant) who protects him from the man-eating ogre, the ogre’s smelling the human and wanting to eat him, the multiple thefts from the ogre, and, finally, the hero’s killing the ogre.” (2001, p.13).

But what is expressly interesting was seeing how the story was edited by Jacobs’. His version does not include Jack recovering his dead father’s treasures but actually IS stealing from the Ogre: this seems much more believable to modern listeners, although traditional oral tellings included the ‘moral justification’. Jacobs’ comment explains why he did it:

‘The object of this [the fairy’s account] was to prevent the tale from becoming an encouragement to theft! I have had greater confidence in my young friends, and have deleted the fairy who did not exist in the tale as told to me‘” (2001, p.20).

The emblem of the gourd in the Lyon edition of Andrea Alciato's Emblemata (1550)
The emblem of the gourd in the Lyon edition of Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata (1550)

A physical manifestation of an axis mundi, a linking object between the different worlds, is present throughout all human cultures. The beanstalk in particular follows a line of legends concerning large vegetables or trees, tall enough to reach into the realms for heroes and Gods to traverse.

In myths, the geography or cosmology manifested in the image of the giant tree is important: as the tree reaches from one world to another, it emphasizes both the seperation and the possibility of interconnection between the worlds” (2001, p.14).

Illustration by Herbert Cole for Ernest Rhys's Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales (London: J. M. Dent, 1906).
Illustration by Herbert Cole for Ernest Rhys’s Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales (London: J. M. Dent, 1906).

Goldberg, Christine. (2001). “The composition of ‘jack and the beanstalk’. Marvels & Tales, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp.11-26.

British Fairy Tales: A Brief History

Mother Goose reading written fairy tales.
Mother Goose reading written fairy tales.

Whilst an already saturated culture of indigenous mythology, the British Isles particularly enjoyed imported stories from other parts of Europe. However, as printing became a more popular method of transmitting stories, literary fairy tales received more common exposure. The height of fairy tales came in the 18th century with translations of French and German fairy tales; the most popular including ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs‘.

Although fairytale tellings have been around since before written history, it was not until the 18th and 19th century surge in publishing and education, which gave access to more readers. A once illiterate society could read and share in the joy of fairytales.

The versions we know were collected, written, and re-written primarily in the two hundred years between Charles Perrault’s Contes du Temps Passe at the end of the seventeenth century and the Fairy Books compiled by Andrew Lang at the end of the nineteenth. But all take us back to a world when only a handful of people outside the church were literate; what came before fairy tales, or before the worlds imagined in them, the tellers knoweth not” (1977, p.373).

Most attempts of compilation came from folklorists outside the British Isles.  Even purely British stories were not published on their home presses; instead translations were exported to mainland Europe including the Cornish and Welsh Mabinogion. It wasn’t until 1882 that English fairy tales were finally published, in Joseph Jacobs’ ‘English Fairy Tales‘. A collection of stories shared orally across the island, English fairy tales included familiar stories and characters well-known even today,  such as The Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs, Tom Tit Tot and Molly Whuppie. Jacobs was one of the first folklorists to collect English tales and label them as ‘fairytales’.

That Jacobs placed tales like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Dick Whittington’, ‘The Pied Piper’, ‘Jack, the Giant Killer’ and the ‘Three Little Pigs’ in a fairytale collection may come as a surprise. But to Jacobs, the fairy world was simply a world where the extraordinary can, and usually did happen. Thus, the giant and ‘wee’ folk equally belonged therein. Originally fairy folk could even be human size. They might be ugly hags or amoral tricksters like Puck or Robin Goodfellow, or even thieves blamed for losses around the house or farm. Jacobs looked on the fairy world as a world of enchantment” (2009).

From 'More English Fairy Tales', Jacobs, J., New York
From ‘More English Fairy Tales’, Jacobs, J., New York

Jacobs is also credited with reviving interest in English folklore among readers of the non-academic persuasion, preserving these classics for future generations at a time when fairytales were viewed as frivolous or unimportant.  Generally until the 17th century, ‘childhood’ didn’t even exist as an age of development.

Anyone who looks at pictures, of the Seven Ages of Man, say, or of portraits of royal and noble children done before the seventeenth century, sees that point made very clearly. In these pictures there are no children as we think of them, but babes in arms, and people of varying heights all of whom have adult faces; people the age of what we call children look like what we call midgets…within the last few centuries, games, songs, and stories which had hitherto been the property of the community became “for children,” and, gradually, stages in the development of people between the ages of four and five to fifteen began to be
created and enforced” (1977, p.380).

It wasn’t until after the Victorian era, when children were considered more innocent than the tiny adults perspective held before, that fairy tales weren’t deemed of any real worth; due to their focus on the fantastic, magic and folly.

Fairy tales were not generally approved and accepted in England before the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially for children. Despite the fact that the classical fairy tales by Perrault had been translated into English in 1729, it was not before the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century that chapbook versions of Perrault’s tales appeared in a format designed to appeal to children” (2010, p.273).

Illustration by Franz Jüttner, from Sneewittchen, Scholz' Künstler-Bilderbücher, Mainz 1905
Illustration by Franz Jüttner, from Sneewittchen, Scholz’ Künstler-Bilderbücher, Mainz 1905

Kaplan, M. (2009). Articles About Storytelling Joseph Jacobs: Writer of Childrens’ Literature. Retrieved November 17, 2015, from http://www.storyteller.net/articles/136

Sale, Roger. (Autumn, 1977). “Fairy tales”. The Hudson Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, p372-394.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. (2010). “Beautiful maidens, hideous suitors: Victorian fairy tales and the process of civilization”. Marvels & Tales. Vol. 24 Issue 2, p272-296.

 

Storytelling Study: British Fairy Tales: Introduction

"A fairy tale is a tale told in a morbid age to the only remaining sane person, a child. A legend is a fairy tale told to men when men were sane.” - G.K. Chesterton

Fairy tales are a common theme in folklore traditions all over the world. Before the printing and distribution of these stories, they were part of a rich oral tradition shared throughout generations. Unlike mythology or legends, fairytales were first told for the purpose of entertaining an audience and would sometimes include such accompaniments as pantomine, puppetry and music. The best ways to describe fairy tales is to understand them in relation to other kinds of fictional narratives; for example, the differences between fantasy and fairy tales. Besides obvious length (fantasy literature tends to be much longer and more detailed than fairy tales) and a focus on keeping the tale true to original, fairy tales have much different origins than other stories.

Fairytales have their roots in archaic society and archaic thought, thus immediately succeeding myths. Myths have close connection to their bearers and folktales are ‘displaced’ in time and space, while literary fairytales and fantasy are definitely products of modern times” (2003, p.138).

More English Fairy Tales, Jacobs, J., New York
More English Fairy Tales, Jacobs, J., New York

The methods of delivery changed, streaming from an oral to printed tradition, but the motivations for sharing fairy tales were still the same. No longer was there room for personal embellishments or changes to fit the audience/teller as the literature came from an unchanging printed source.

When many people shared the tradition, even in the latter days when it was more a written than an oral tradition, the
sharing could help free the literature from being a matter of individual taste; it led to enough stories being familiar so that the intent and impact of each could be felt and understood; it discouraged the distortion caused when fairy tale literature became thought of as children’s literature” (1977, p.374).

 

Nikolajeva, Maria. (2003). “Fairy tales and fantasy: From archaic to postmodern”. Marvels & Tales, Vol. 17, No.1, p138-156.

Sale, Roger. (Autumn, 1977). “Fairy tales”. The Hudson Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, p372-394.

 

Telling for Different Audiences

To practice my telling of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, I told the story to different groups. First to a small, intimate group of girls (my daughter and nieces), and then my afterschool program class (14 kids from grades kindergarten through 3rd). It was wildly received and gave me the confidence I needed to make the performance video for my class. Now that I am moving onto the second presentation/telling, my audience will be an older crowd as I research British fairy tales for the Halloween season. Young adults and adults would receive these kinds of stories differently than younger children, who might find suspense or ghost stories too scary. One which I am considering is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, although it really is more of a Yuletide tale. The intricacies of this tale would not come across well to small children, but older kids would enjoy the graphic violence of sword fights and beheadings.
In “Storytelling: Art and Technique”, the chapter on ‘Storytelling for Young Adults’ offers a lot of tips on choosing and presenting stories which this age group would enjoy, and why. For example, young adults particularly enjoy tales of the fantastic…especially when modernized or re-imagined.
According to psychologists, listeners and readers vicariously experience whatever the main character in a story experiences. When the main character overcomes fear and defeats a frightening being or situation, listeners learnt to face and defeat the challenges in their own lives” (2010, p.179).
Thinking about this connection, I remember in the 5th grade our teacher reading the entire series from C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. Even though we could all grab a copy of the text to follow along, I preferred putting my head down and listening to the character voices, imagined the smell of those woods and ocean voyages. Early on I closed my eyes and imagined how scared Lucy must have been, encountering the faun Mr. Tumnus in the first book; or when Edmund was enslaved by the Witch Queen, Jadus. I always figured, if these kids could survive world war two through their adventures in Narnia, I could get through anything.

Greene, E., & Negro, J. (2010). Storytelling: Art and technique (Fourth ed.). California: Libraries Unlimited.